Feature written for the magazine Outré (created by some university peers and me) https://outremaglondon.wixsite.com/outremaglondon/post/uncovering-psychedelics
The potential of psychedelic drugs for mental health, personal growth and creativity has been researched for years with positive results, is it time they become mainstream drugs?
Laying in a double mattress in a dark room in Switzerland, Caroline Flerin* is waiting for the MDMA to kick in. “It feels like waves, you’re transported into different worlds. It feels like being Alice in wonderland and falling down the rabbit hole,” Flerin says. Psychedelics have been stigmatised since Nixon’s "War on Drugs”, but the research on its possible positive effects isn’t new. Ever since Dr Hofmann first identified LSD in 1943, its potential to open the mind and help depression and anxiety has been a topic of discussion. Hofmann called LSD “medicine for the soul” and despite the controversy, he spent his life researching psychedelics. Following a wave of misuse in the 1960s, psychedelics were described as harmful, making the research and study of their possible positive effects extremely difficult. But things now seem to be heading in a different direction and there are several facilities researching on the positive potential of these drugs, commonly psilocybin (one of the components of mushrooms), LSD, MDMA, Ketamine and Ayahuasca (traditionally used as a spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon).
Flerin hasn’t had the easiest of childhoods. She experienced abuse from a young age and been a victim of constant cheating and toxic behaviour from her ex husband. Flerin tried to come to peace with her experiences through years of therapy accompanied with medication. After a lack of improvement by mainstream antidepressants, her therapist suggested trying something unconventional: psychedelic therapy. “It shouldn’t be seen as a fashion, trendy thing. I was hospitalized 3 times in psychiatric care,” Flerin says. “For me this was kind of a last resort after years of taking useless antidepressants and bad therapy.” Imperial College London has dedicated an area of research to psychedelics and have done multiple trials which have provided promising results in the potential of psilocybin for treating mental health issues such as PTSD. Imperial College has also focused studies on human connection with nature through the intake of psychedelic drugs. In a study released last year, data showed that psilocybin treatment was linked with an average increase in patients feeling more connected to their environment.
Sam Gandy, Ecological Science graduate and researcher at Imperial College, says that “within the next 5 to 10 years, psilocybin would be rescheduled as a treatment for major depression and that will make it much more accessible to other researchers.” He believes that change in the usage of psychedelics is inevitable: “The cat is out of the bag and it’s not gonna go back in.”
Gandy’s research at Imperial focuses on psychedelics' capacity to reconnect us to nature as a way to tackle mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety through achieving a connection with oneself and our surroundings. Findings in this research are very positive, though they cannot be disclosed until they’re published. Gandy advances that drugs such as LSD or psilocybin help to dissolve the ego, facilitating a global connectivity in areas of the brain that are normally separate. Therefore allowing us to think differently. “Your sense of self starts to break down and turns to your individual self in how you relate to the world and universe,” Gandy says. “Those perceived boundaries between self and others dissolve... it becomes blurred where you as an individual end and where the rest of the universe starts.”
Al Brown, 35, grew up in England to a Turkish family. He experienced abuse in his early years and can make sense of his experience at the NHS psychedelic trial attending to the findings in Gandy’s research. “I've lived with anxiety for many years and had sexually abusive experiences in my teenage years, which then made me very closed…” says Brown. “It was like having a shell around you, but then you're taken outside of it after taking these drugs and, when it's time to go back in, it doesn't fit anymore.” Brown’s life has revolved around music for many years but his frustration struggling with depression and anxiety and being unresponsive to antidepressants, made him leave music aside. He decided to sign up to the NHS research trial to use psychedelics, in his case Ketamine, to treat addictions or bad patterns of behaviour. “I was always very afraid of psychedelics because of the idea that you could lose your mind… But then I came back to it and I thought to try again with a smaller dose,” says Brown. Steadily and building up the dose with time, his old way of thinking didn’t make sense to him anymore, patterns of behaviour had started to make a shift. Reflecting on why traditional approaches to heal trauma and depression don’t work, Brown suggests that conventionally, issues are tried to be controlled and contained rather than trying to be integrated within oneself.
“They[conventional approaches] narrow the spectrum of the human experience for the person taking that compound rather than taking them over the edge… a plant medicine helps you to break through and be free,” says Brown. “It’s like a snake with its skin being shed, the snake is still there, it must be acknowledged”Flerin and Brown have both gone through similar experiences with these drugs. They were both taken back to their inner child,being to talk to them through the acts that their younger selves couldn’t comprehend which led to their mental disorders. “Psychedelic therapy is like 3 years of psychotherapy wrapped in a few hours!” Flerin says. “These substances are very powerful and can clearly be misused. You need to do this in a very supportive environment...it’s not a magic bullet!” Flerin says.
“I felt it being a new start. I felt my mind to be more open and that has shown a lot in my music,” Brown says. “Psychedelics foster creativity, they give you access to a really powerful telescope to see as far as you possibly can and as much as you possibly can.”Brown now plays more upbeat and disco-y tunes in an attempt of transmitting his new found hope and happiness to the people listening to his music.
Despite the continuous efforts for years of decriminalising psychedelics and fund their research, Gandy and Brown seem to concur that the reason why this hasn’t happened yet remain in its threat to society’s order:“For me, it comes to the repression of consciousness and control of the population. Anything that supports us becoming fully realized, makes us ungovernable as a large body,” says Brown.
Brown is certain that our society supports altered states of consciousness, but only those that derange the senses like alcohol. “Alcohol and caffeine are very bad, yet the caffeine is for the Monday morning, the alcohol is for the Friday night and the wheels of society keep turning. But we're not taught to fear them when they are incredibly damaging substances,” he says.
With the progress of research on the potential of psychedelics and patients being able to integrate their traumas through the intake of these drugs, funding for facilitating their understanding should be made more available. Different research centres and facilities offering psychedelic therapy are easier to find everyday and it’s crucial that we try to build a path of understanding the benefits and dangers of their intake.
*Some names have been modified for privacy and confidentiality purposes